For weeks the political heavyweight, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, sat on the sidelines. AIPAC refrained from taking a position on whether or not the United States should undertake a military strike against Syria. Its silence continued, even following confirmation of Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Then, suddenly, without warning, AIPAC announced it would come out swinging with both fists. And now we know why.
It was not a big surprise to watchers of major pro-Israel organizations that AIPAC remained silent on the question of whether the U.S. should use its force against a Middle Eastern dictator who – at the moment – was not directly threatening Israel.
At least one good reason why many pro-Israel organizations were reluctant to wade into this thicket is the inevitability that the story will then become that oh-so-popular refrain: the Jews are forcing American boys to die for them. Call that the Big Blame Theory. We’ll get back to it in a moment.
But after weeks of silence and nearly silent no-committals from the AIPAC behemoth, the word came several days ago that AIPAC had entered the hard-core lobbying front on behalf of President Obama’s “limited, tailored” strikes on Syria.
So what happened?
What happened is politics. No, not the Jews pushing the U.S. to fight Israel’s battles. This one was Team Obama calling in its own chits, and asking, nah, insisting that AIPAC wind-up its many operatives and get them to start pushing hard on their congressional contacts to throw in their yes vote for the Obama strikes.
At least, that’s what 23-plus year AIPAC veteran Steven J. Rosen wrote in the article, “Pushed on the Bandwagon,” appearing in the September 4th edition of the Middle East Quarterly.
Rosen’s article was long on specifics but short on sources.
Nevertheless, it is hard to believe he would write those specifics without having very sound reasons to believe them to be true. Rosen wrote about AIPAC’s desperate effort to ensure that no one would blame “the Jews” for pushing the U.S. into a war with Iraq: AIPAC never openly endorsed the authorization; AIPAC organized a letter from 16 members of congress swearing that AIPAC did not take an official position on the war and never lobbied them on the war; former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned George W. Bush that attacking Iraq was a mistake.
Of course, none of those efforts to prove non-participation bore any fruit. The Jews, by whatever name people chose to use – the Israel Lobby, the Jews, or the Neocons – were and still are blamed for pushing the U.S. into a massively unpopular war with Iraq. That’s the Big Blame Theory.
And so AIPAC was going to definitely, positively, absolutely stay out of this fight. As with Iraq, Syria is not the threat to Israel that Iran is. And AIPAC has always (at least until now) refrained from using its mighty political strength for any fight in which Israel is not directly threatened. But now all that has changed.
As Rosen put it,
Responding to a full-court press by the Obama administration — a call to Netanyahu, a direct message to AIPAC, and messages via congressional leaders — AIPAC has weighed in fully in support of the president’s call for intervention.
There are a myriad of responses to AIPAC’s appearance in the front line of the congressional battle on behalf of Obama’s Syrian Strike. Many analysts see only bad results for AIPAC and the pro-Israel world, no matter what happens.
It’s a classic example of heads you win, tails I lose. If congress authorizes Obama’s plan, and things go badly – who is going to be blamed? The Jews. If congress votes against Obama’s plan, AIPAC looks feeble, and loses credibility as well as having wasted political chits it would have preferred to save for when Israel is directly threatened.
Something Rosen doesn’t mention, but others do, is the awkward realization that although team Obama has apparently pushed hard on AIPAC to help bring in the votes for the president’s plan, other, more logical organizations have been immune from the importuning.
In an article published Monday, the day after word came out about Obama’s push on AIPAC, Ed Lasky asks some very pointed questions:
where are all those Arab-American groups? Why don’t we read articles about them working on Congressmen? Why hasn’t the White House pressured them to become involved in this effort? After all, it is their people being murdered by the tens of thousands. At the very least it would reduce charges about Jews and Israel and Washington — even if Arab-American groups don’t have as much sway as other groups.
Aren’t these the various groups that raise hell when there is even a whiff of prejudice towards Muslims? Barack Obama has constantly hosted these groups in the White House — and not just to celebrate Muslim holidays. The White House has their contact information and has close relationships with them.
Another conservative political commentator made a similar point. Richard Baehr, in an article in Israel HaYom, pointed out that Obama has not even employed his own personal lobbying group, Organizing for America, to lobby members of congress on behalf of his Syria Plan.
Those are worthwhile points to consider, although, a small amendment should be noted: the Muslim Public Affairs Council came out publicly in favor of American intervention against Syria, in the wake of Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
But whether or not Rosen believes it is “fair” to call on AIPAC to put its neck on the line for yet another wildly unpopular U.S. military effort, he ultimately concludes it is sufficiently important for the U.S. to follow through on its stated commitment to act, given Assad’s crossing Obama’s red line.
While many ridicule secretary of state John Kerry’s description of the proposed American attack as a “teeny weeny” strike, Rosen believes that even a limited attack, one which “destroys Syria’s aircraft and helicopters, degrades its air defenses and disables its runways, would be a benefit to Israel and the region — no matter who emerges victorious there.”
Rendering worthless Syria’s air force infrastructure surely responds to, if not entirely disables, the argument for sitting out this fight because either side is monstrous.
Rosen believes America’s failure to act “will be a disaster for the Middle East and the world, and it may be impossible to contain the damage.”
And Rosen goes further. ”Israel’s permanent reality is that it lives in that very bad neighborhood, faced with an existential crisis and a Syrian civil war in danger of spiraling out of control.” Rosen says that is why an overwhelming majority of Israelis hope that Obama succeeds in convincing congress to act.
And even if the U.S. decides to accept Russia’s offer to “guarantee” Syria will turn over all its chemical weapons to the international community – an idea that seemed to erupt from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s mouth without his having thought it through in advance – the political maneuvers and AIPAC’s role, its response and its being held hostage, are well worth consideration.
Next time someone asks whether Obama has Israel’s back, the likely answer may well be, “no, but AIPAC has Obama’s.”
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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